911 Operator Job Description
911 operators help keep communities safe by receiving emergency calls and dispatching fire, police, and EMS crews to accidents, crime scenes, fires, and other emergencies. A 911 operator may also stay on the line with a caller to provide instructions, help the caller to remain calm, and gather further information to pass on to first responders.
Because 911 operators must effectively speak to both emergency response personnel and individuals dealing with emergencies, excellent communication skills are required.
911 Operator Duties and Responsibilities
911 operators need sound judgment and the ability to rapidly set priorities and make important decisions in a short period of time while performing the following tasks:
Answer Emergency Calls
911 operators answer emergency calls, which come in via telephone, computer system, or radio. 911 operators quickly assess the nature of the call, gather vital information about the situation, and relay that information to first responders. Because this role often requires the 911 operator to field multiple, concurrent calls, this role requires an individual who is able to prioritize without becoming overwhelmed.
Dispatch Emergency Services
911 operators quickly determine which emergency response personnel should be dispatched. 911 operators look at maps and GIS systems to determine which responders are nearest to the address where the incident occurred. They must effectively communicate the situation to first responders and provide necessary details that can them assist when they arrive at the scene.
Many 911 callers are in a state of fear or panic while reporting an accident, crime, or fire. 911 operators help callers calmly deal with the situation. At times, this can simply mean staying on the line until emergency services arrive; at other times, 911 operators may have to provide extensive guidance or direction to ensure the caller’s safety until first responders arrive.
In addition to receiving calls and dispatching first responders, 911 operators keep detailed records of calls and actions taken in response. These records can play an important role in law enforcement and public safety, so it’s essential that 911 operators maintain these records accurately. Transcriptions of emergency phone calls are recorded as they occur, so excellent typing skills are necessary.
911 Operator Skills and Qualifications
911 operators play a central role in emergency management and response by connecting community members with fire, police, and EMS services. Employers typically hire applicants with a high school diploma or equivalent and the following skills:
- Effective communication – 911 operators field a high volume of calls from individuals who may be injured or afraid. They have to be able to effectively determine the nature of a call, the details of the incident, and the correct emergency services to dispatch
- Judgment and prioritization – because 911 calls come in frequently, sound judgment and the ability to prioritize these calls are required to ensure that people receive the assistance they need
- Typing – 911 operators transcribe their calls, often using computer-aided dispatch systems to communicate with first responders, so being able to type quickly and accurately is essential
- Spatial reasoning – 911 operators are assigned to a territory and need to be familiar with the geography of their assigned area to help them examine information from maps and GIS systems to contact the closest responders
- Attention to detail – a 911 operator needs to gather a lot of information from callers and accurately pass that information on to first responders
- Problem-solving – in the course of helping a caller, a 911 operator may need to quickly come up with a solution to a problem or a way to help while emergency response personnel are en route
911 Operator Tools of the Trade
911 operators may work in call centers, police and fire stations, or hospitals, using specialized technologies to answer calls and dispatch first responders such as:
- Computer-aided dispatch systems (Spillman, TriTech, Intergraph)
- Law enforcement databases (Justice Xchange, National Crime Information Center)
911 Operator Education and Training
This position requires at least a high school diploma or GED. In addition, some experience as a phone operator, telemarketer, or customer support representative is helpful, since 911 operators need to be able to field a high volume of phone calls throughout the workday. Because 911 operators use several specialized software programs to receive calls and dispatch emergency services, a significant amount of training occurs on the job. Additionally, some jurisdictions may require 911 operators to pass an exam.
911 Operator Salary and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median pay for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers was $38,870 as of May 2016. This salary varies widely based on location, agency, and jurisdiction. In 2016, the lowest 10 percent of earners in the field made under $25,100, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned over $61,270.
Employment in this field is expected to grow eight percent between 2016 and 2026, with the BLS estimating an additional 8,200 jobs.
911 Operator Helpful Resources
We’ve found many online industry resources, communities, and opportunities for further reading for those who may be interested in beginning a career as a 911 operator:
911 Magazine – The industry magazine for 911 operators features articles and professional development opportunities.
Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat – Caroline Burau’s memoir follows the author’s path to becoming a 911 operator and provides an honest look at the field.
911DispatcherEdu.org – This website provides extensive information about starting a career and working as a 911 operator, with state-by-state details and links to job listings.
Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout – A former operator provides techniques and strategies for dealing with this frequently stressful role.
Dispatcher Dame’s Diatribes – A blog written by a current 911 operator, full of unfiltered insights into the field and honest reflections on working in emergency services.
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